Finishing a walk the Afzaal family never got to, students in London area march against Islamophobia

·3 min read
Students at Saint André Bessette Catholic Secondary School tie green and purple ribbons to a fence on the anniversary of losing the Azaal family of London, Ont., on June 6, 2021.  (Michelle Both/CBC - image credit)
Students at Saint André Bessette Catholic Secondary School tie green and purple ribbons to a fence on the anniversary of losing the Azaal family of London, Ont., on June 6, 2021. (Michelle Both/CBC - image credit)

The day a year ago that the Afzaal family was attacked in London, Ont., Zeina Abdulhadi was out for a walk with her mom, and the Grade 10 student said she could hear the sounds of the sirens arriving.

Zeina joined with others across the region on Monday, the exact one-year mark of the attack, to honour the family by symbolically completing the walk they never got to finish — and taking a stand against Islamophobia. It's one of numerous events that had been planned to coincide with the anniversary.

"Just having everyone out here on a walk, completing the walk that they never got to complete, just means the world," Zeina said. "It just gives you that feeling of support and that people are going to be there and to reach out if you need the help."

She said she was scared after the attack on June 6, 2021, because she wears a hijab. The Afzaal family was out for a Sunday evening walk when the attack happened. Police say they were targeted because of their Muslim faith.

Seeing the community's response has helped Zeina feel supported and loved.

Students and staff at Saint André Bessette Catholic Secondary School walked for 15 minutes around the track Monday and tied green and purple ribbons on the fence along Fanshawe Park Road West.

Schools across the Thames Valley District School Board and London District Catholic School Board participated in walks as well on Monday to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack.

Kate Dubinski/CBC
Kate Dubinski/CBC

Baraa Tahat, in Grade 10 at Saint André Bessette Catholic Secondary School, was alongside Muslim Student Association members, handing out ribbons to staff and students.

"It honestly means a lot because I never actually knew that people actually care this much," said Baraa. "But now I see a lot of people walking. It makes me feel like there's hope and people actually care.

"I feel like I'm not alone."

The green ribbons symbolize Islam and purple was 15-year-old Yumna Afzaal's favourite colour, he said. Yumna, her parents and her grandmother were killed in the attack, and her younger brother was hospitalized but survived.

"It's important to make sure that everyone feels welcome here," said 15-year-old Kiera Reeves, a Saint Andre Bessette student who participated in the walk. "It's important that we finish the walk and that we show that we're grateful to them."

Michelle Both/CBC
Michelle Both/CBC

Although Kiera didn't know the family personally, she has a friend who did. "It still hits hard," said Kiera.

"There's been a lot of students that have been impacted personally — even the people that didn't know the Afzaal family. There's a sense of impact in the whole school community," said Kevin Barnes, principal at Saint Andre Bessette Catholic Secondary School. "It's sad, it's difficult and it's hard."

The school is located on Tokala Trail, just three kilometres north of Hyde Park Road and South Carriage Road, where the attack on the Afzaal family took place.

The student-led walk is a "quiet, respectful remembrance," and offers a message of hope, Barnes said.

Michelle Both/CBC
Michelle Both/CBC

Barnes is proud of the students who created the Youth Coalition Combating Islamobphobia ( YCCI). They've taken a leadership role in responding to this tragedy and fighting Islamophobia, he said, which is something "they shouldn't have had to do."

The walk also brings a message to take the opportunity to stand up against hate whether big or small, he said.

"Any small action of hate is not acceptable."

LISTEN | Imam Aarij Anwer of London Muslim Mosque reflects on the year since the attack:.

Students hope the community will keep remembering the Afzaals after the events are over.

"Remember their names. Keep them in your prayers. Keep them in your thoughts,"  said Zeina.

Michelle Both/CBC
Michelle Both/CBC

A man charged with murder, attempted murder and associated terrorism counts is scheduled to go to trial in 2023.

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